A bunch of books for rainy days at the beach

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, July 1996

?Windows 95 Answers: Certified Tech Support?
by Martin S. Matthews and Carole Boogs Matthews
ISBN 0-07-882128-2
Osborne McGraw Hill
$19.95 (US)

?Windows 95 for Busy People?
by Ron Mansfield
ISBN 0-07-882110-X

?Excel for Windows 95 for Busy People?
by Ron Mansfield
ISBN 0-07-882111-8

?Word for Windows 95 for Busy People?
by Ron Mansfield
ISBN 0-07-882109-6
-- all ?... for Busy People? books
Osborne McGraw Hill
$22.95 (US)

The rate of change of computer hardware and software leaves an awful lot of people feeling left behind or just left out. So maybe you or your employer goes out and spends a pile of money on new hardware and software... now what do you do?

Once upon a time, you could count on getting a big fat manual. Now maybe, like most people you never read it. And maybe, like the classic MS-DOS manuals, even if you wanted to read them, they weren?t very readable. At least they were there, providing a certain feeling of solidity.

Now, following the demise of 1-800 number telephone technical support, printed manuals are the next to go. Some software comes with the manuals on CD-- in other cases, there simply isn?t much at all.

Take Windows 95... it comes with a slim user manual, that may get a new user pointed towards the Start button, but certainly isn?t much help in case of problems. There?s the on-screen Tip of the Day, and an introductory tutorial, and help file. And if you have the CD-version, if you do some poking around, you?ll find the Win 95 Resource Kit... in the form of a multi-meg help file. More information than you can assimilate, but not in a form that?s easy to get at for most of us.

Instead, books aimed at new users have achieved best-seller status. IDG?s bright yellow Dummies series, for example, has spawned imitators (bright orange ?CD-ROM for Idiots? for example), and even expanded beyond the computer field with titles like ?Sex for Dummies?.

I find it interesting that so many people are willing to purchase and carry around books that proclaim that they are stupid. Osborne McGraw Hill has recently debuted a series aimed at the same market, but instead, defines its readers as ?Busy People?.

All the books in this series feature full colour illustrations on virtually every page, and the same set of quirky, post-modern cartoon figures. And all the volumes that I?ve seen are focusing on Windows 95 users. (Even the ?Internet for Busy People? volume, not reviewed here, limits its examples and illustrations to Windows 95-compatible software).

The books in this series also share a common outline... each is broken into chunks that can be easily assimilated in 15 minutes or so. Each chapter starts out with a Fast Forward section-- a detailed outline of the contents, letting the reader know what to expect, and what to skip over. The prose of each book is sprightly-- opinionated and mildly ironic... much more fun to read than that old DOS manual.

Each starts with enough information to get a user up and running, and then moves into specialized topics, along with suggestions that readers should feel free to skip over these chapters until they actually need the information.

The Windows 95 volume, for example, starts by getting the reader to start Win95, and make it past the optional password screen and Tip of the Day. Tour the desktop, the TaskBar, and the Start menu... start programs. Run DOS programs in windows or in DOS Mode. On to managing windows, and using the Clipboard, then to getting help when you need it. Next, managing disks, folders, and files with Explorer, the Recycle Bin.,  and the Find command.

Vital tasks such as backup, virus checking (no, virus checking isn?t included with Win 95), checking for disk errors, defragmentation, and compression are reviewed, followed by a collection of timesaving techniques-- using the right mouse button, keyboard shortcuts, scraps, drag-and-drop, shortcuts, properties, and OLE. Installing and removing programs, troubleshooting printers and fonts, and using the Control Panel to personalize your setup. More advanced topics include networks, modems, fax, and direct connections, and multimedia, ending with an appendix on installation.

With similar look and feel, the Excel and Word volumes similarly guide new users through getting started with these popular programs, then move on to review a range of  features that may not be needed by everyone, but are nice to know. Even though I?ve used both programs regularly for years, I found the clear explanations helped me with features that have improved my use of each application.

The Excel volume starts off with general tips for entering data and navigating a spreadsheet, before moving on to getting help-- looking at special help for 1-2-3 users, and connecting to the Microsoft Network for help from other users. Templates are brought up, along with the new Auto... features such as AutoTemplate, AutoCalculate, AutoComplete, AutoCorrect, AutoFilter, and AutoFill (whew!).

Moving and deleting cells, rows, and columns, then formatting tricks, including styles. Organizing large projects, with named ranges, frozen titles, and multiple worksheets. Functions (whole books have been written covering spreadsheet functions-- so a single chapter will be, understandably limited to scratching the surface). Charts, graphics, macros. What-if scenarios, ending with a chapter on auditing and troubleshooting. Appendices on installing Excel, and Win95 basics.

The companion, Word volume fills a similar set of needs for Excel?s companion program-- it gets users up and running quickly, producing, printing, and saving a document that?s been word-processed, not just typed on a computer. Then users are hand-held through customizing the fonts and settings used by default, setting preferences, and creating personalized toolbars. Basic formatting and editing, and living with automatic spell checking (new to Word 95). Using Autocorrect to create boilerplate add-ins, making your own templates, and recording simple macros.

Produce a simple report, using styles, headers and footers, numbered lists and more. Importing documents in other formats. Searching with both Word and Win95?s Find commands. Designing and reusing forms-- both paper-based and on-screen. Mail merge and envelope printing. Sharing documents with a workgroup. E-mail and fax. Maintaining large documents. Producing a newsletter. Finally, a section on Internet Assistant, the optional free add-in that turns Word into a combination Web browser and tool for creating your own HTML home pages. Once again, the book ends up with sections on installing the program, and working with Win95.

My wife Linda, not a ?computer person?, recently started a new job, complete with Windows 95, Word 95 and Excel 95 on her desktop. She could barely wait for me to finish this review in order to get to take these books to her office... as a real-life busy person, she found these books? formats let her find just the information she needed, and let her improve her ability to use computers on the job.

Also from the same publisher, ?Windows 95 Answers? is aimed at a somewhat different audience-- either the Windows 95 user who has run into problems, or the person called on for support. It?s based on information used by Stream International (formerly Corporate Software, Inc.), one of several companies hired by Microsoft to provide phone-in tech support to new Win95 users.

Since this technical support started even before the official release of Windows 95, working with the 400,000 Win95 Preview Program users, there is a good range of typical problems and questions-- along with answers.

The book is organized into a question and answer format, organized by topic. Installation, new features, customizing and optimizing, day-to-day use. File management, printing, networking, communications, multimedia, and the new (or not so new) DOS. About 400 problems and solutions... plus the Top Ten Tech Terrors!

Not a book most readers will want to read cover-to-cover, instead, they are encouraged to move quickly to their specific problem-- and get a solution just as quickly.

This book could easily pay for itself if it helps you avoid a single technical support call, with long-distance time on hold.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan